‘I’m Puerto Rican—I’d Be Great at Selling Drugs’; ‘Not Married? She Must Be a Lesbian’

ABC’s new comedy “Work It” has offended Latinos, LGBT people, TV critics and viewers. How can a company use its employee-resource groups, diversity councils and clarity of values to prevent multicultural missteps?

By Barbara Frankel

work it tv showStraight men in dresses using urinals. Comments such as “I’m Puerto Rican—I’d be great at selling drugs” and “No, she’s not married. She must be a lesbian.”

What was ABC thinking when it allowed its new comedy “Work It” to air Tuesday night? The show, whose premise is that two unemployed straight men dress as women to get jobs as pharmaceutical sales reps, had dismal ratings. It has been dubbed by gawker.com as the “worst television show in history.” It has been vociferously attacked by LGBT and Latino organizations, as well as every television critic we can find.

What lessons should ABC and other corporations have learned in cultural competence from their employee-resource groups, diversity councils and diverse senior leadership to avoid such missteps?

Ironically, ABC, owned by The Walt Disney Company, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies, has long been heralded for the diversity of characters on its shows in terms of race/ethnicity, orientation and disability. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), noted this in a statement from GLAAD demanding this show be cancelled:

“As a network with a record of positive portrayals of LGBT people, ABC should know better than to air this offensive program that even has the potential to jeopardize the safety of transgender people,” he said. ABC has not released a statement on the criticisms of the show.

Lesson No. 1: Vet Your Content With Your ERGs

Multicultural missteps are nothing new, and many companies have faced the wrath of consumers and critics. The best way to avoid them is to use employee-resource groups as focus groups to vet content with people from these underrepresented groups. ABC’s LGBT, Latino and women’s employee-resource groups would have raised red flags right away about this content and could have helped ABC retool the show to make it less offensive—or pushed to scrap it altogether.

The men in this show are portrayed as bumbling, macho stereotypes, and the women are stupid and insipid. The Puerto Rican drug comment (one of the two men is Puerto Rican) has organizations from the National Institute for Latino Policy to the Latino Leadership Institute infuriated. The Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety asking ABC to cancel the show, primarily because of the impact it will have on transgender women, who face enough difficulties being accepted in mainstream America.

An employee-resource group, especially one whose leaders are trusted to meet regularly with senior management, would have pointed out how offensive these stereotypes are and how dangerous they are to the corporate reputation.

Lesson No. 2: Make Sure Your Senior Management Reflects the Population

Latinos are now more than 16 percent of the U.S. population, and that increases each year. LGBT people are estimated at 10 percent, and when you include their allies, that percentage skyrockets. Why alienate two such important consumer bases?

Companies whose senior management is diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, orientation and disability have a different type of sensibility at the top. There is someone to say, “Whoa! Let’s put on the brakes. Have you considered the ramifications to MY community?”

Our research and DiversityInc Top 50 data shows that formal, cross-cultural mentoring is the most demonstrable way to bring diversity to the upper ranks. Other methods of including diversity in formal succession planning include requiring diverse slates and cultural-competency training for candidates.

Lesson No. 3:  Diversity Councils and CEOs Set Clearly-Stated Values and Hold People Accountable

A senior executive diversity council, led by the CEO, will hold executives accountable, primarily through compensation, for diversity results. They also will hold executives accountable for diversity missteps and for the marketplace consequences of those. They state their values clearly and consistently and never waver from them.

As this Ask the White Guy column by Luke Visconti demonstrates, clarity of values is critical from the start. When something goes wrong, as it did in the Tennessee chamber of commerce supporting an anti-LGBT law, several companies involved communicated immediately and clearly that they objected to this proposal and were disassociating themselves from the chamber activities.

Having a culture of inclusion in the workplace is important. But if that real belief in inclusion isn’t clearly communicated and demonstrated by external actions, it will fail to resonate with your constituents—employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers.

Here’s a roundup of what’s been said about this show:

The National Institute for Latino Policy released a statement Jan. 4 on the imagery of Puerto Ricans in “Work It.” The NYC Latino Politics and Latino Leadership Institute both are calling Latinos to action: Julio Pabon, the blog’s author, picketed ABC’s offices with other Latinos.

GLAAD and HRC Tell ABC That ‘Work It’ Will Harm Transgender People
GLAAD and HRC ran a full-page ad in Daily Variety in December protesting the show prior to its premiere for its representation of cross-dressing and its misrepresentation of transgender people.

ABC’s Work It Unnecessarily Injurious to Transgender Americans
HRC President Joe Solmonese and GLAAD Acting President Mike Thompson published a post expressing that ABC should not air the “comedy.”

“Work It” Drawing Criticism from LGBT Organizations
National Center for Lesbian Rights provides a summary of the “Work It” pre-launch controversy and links to more information about the cause.

ABC’s “Work It” should be Fired Immediately
National Women’s Law Center comments on the legal inaccuracies of “Work It” and its offensiveness to several groups, including transgender people, women and Latinos.

LGBT Groups Condemn ABC Show Work It; Say Work It Doesn’t Work!
Transgender Law Center protested “Work It” before its premiere, noting the show “validates outdated gender-norms and expectations.”

Click here to watch a video clip of the show.

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  • Apparently ABC thinks it is still 1984, when they ran the show “Bosom Buddies” for two seasons before cancelling it. It’s too bad that nothing has been learned by the television networks in what constitutes acceptable viewing fare in the last 25+ years with respect to sensitivity and proper respect. Shame on them for upping the ante and alienating multiple represented groups in one fell swoop!

  • michael barrett

    You may recall that Tom Hanks got his start on a television show called “Bosom Buddies” centuries ago. Same premise, similar jokes (but not as extreme), big hit.

  • I am Puerto Rican…….we love humor. I have heard much worse on Puerto Rican radio station. Get a life, everyone does not have personol issues to deal with and a little humor can heal the soul. Tired of everything being offensive like it’s exclusive to groups.
    Enjoy life and stop finding faults with it. WEPA!

  • michael barrett

    Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines on humor, nor can there be. Humor relies on irony or contradictory behavior. In fact, every joke ever spoken is offensive to someone, somewhere, because the joke singles out a group that may be overly sensitive or is heard by someon who recently suffered a tragedy. The Government and the courts try to apply a “reasonable person” standard, but someone will still be offended. Good luck trying to draw a line that pleases everyone.

    • Luke Visconti

      Here’s a clear guideline: Leveraging stereotypes for a laugh is almost always offensive. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

      • Meredith Curry

        Mr. Visconti: Well said. As I tell my classes when conducting Diversity training, “Anyone that is the victim of the punchline is not appropriate.”

  • Richard Hohn

    I watched this show. I thought some of it was very funny. As long as the character is making comments within his character’s own ethnic origin it is acceptable. If the white guy had said something about the Puerto Rican then you would have an argument. My advice to the author of this article is to stop beating the war drums and get over it.

    • Luke Visconti

      The character does not have free will. It is fiction made up by people who are exceptionally insensitive and apparently not good at what they do. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

    • Meredith Curry

      I disagree that it’s okay to make comments within your own race/gender, etc. Granted, this show is not in the workplace, but if I had employees repeating these jokes, they could face disciplinary action (even if it’s a verbal repimand).

      As someone who investigates workplace civil rights complaints, and conducts civil rights training, I can assure you that even if an employee is making comments within their own race/color, gender, etc. a civil rights complaint can be filed and there is the potential of a probable cause finding, if not severe and pervasive enough to get the case into court.

  • michael barrett

    Mr. Visconti is likely correct on both counts: the producers are probably insensitive and apparently not all that funny. But judging humor is a tricky business. I’m trying to apply Mr. Visconti’s standard of using only humor that doesn’t rely on pre-conceived notions — stereotypes — concerning groups or individuals, and I’m having difficulty. Please tell us a joke that doesn’t rely on stereotypes or make fun of something.

    • Luke Visconti

      Making fun of “something” is pretty broad. Would you say the joke that begins “why did the chicken cross the road?” makes fun of the chicken? I don’t think it does. I am a member of a pan-Latino group (an Anglo member, but was elected Member of the Year in 2006). The group was started by Puerto Ricans, and membership, at first, was mostly people who were from Puerto Rico. At one meeting, a group of guys started telling Puerto Rican jokes. I walked away laughing – saying “I cannot be a part of this” – they got it, but laughed even harder. My point is that this happens – stereotypes can be funny. However, if you are in a leadership role, or responsible for content in a major network that is leveraging stereotypes in a lame attempt to make people laugh, it’s offensive – especially if you are from the majority culture. Along those lines, please keep this in mind – a man cannot make a joke about a woman or women and be appropriate in any professional setting. There may be an exception to that rule, but I can’t think of it offhand. Before someone emails me to say how “unfair” that is, look up the answers to the following questions: How many women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are there? What is the percentage of women in Congress? How many women presidents of the United States are there? What percentage of business equity worldwide is owned by women? (That’s a tough one to find – WEConnect.org estimates only 1%). Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • michael barrett

    I have to agree with Mr. Visconti on this point: People in leadership roles or in large organizations must avoid EEO violations, even if they see no immediate harm in a particular joke. And even if they are absolutely certain that nobody being told the joke will be offended, there is the danger of a “third party” overhearing the joke and being offended. I think all of us know someone who has had to apologize, and rightfully so, for a joke that reached the wrong ears. As an EEO lawyer and as someone familiar with the TV business, I can assure you that TV production companies are constantly wrestling with EEO boundaries — concerning both their audience and their employees — and, as always, cash is the decisive factor. If and when networks see a dent in their cash flow, they will respond accordigly.

  • Federico Forlano

    I used to feel the same way about the Sopranos. Being of Italian heritage, I was all offended over a show that I had never watched. It definietly perpetuated Italian stereotypes. But then I watched it and realized not only were many of the character portrayls accurate, it was a really well produced show. I think people should stop being so offended over everything. If the show is that bad, it will be cancelled, and if it’s not, then it deserves to be on the air. What happened to the famous line “You can always change the channel”? Is it arbitary depending on who is offended?

    • Luke Visconti

      I don’t think it’s arbitrary at all – it’s connected with quality and consistency. For example, many Italian Americans were offended by The Sopranos – in my observation, it was mostly people of my father’s generation, not mine (or younger). I wasn’t offended, mainly for the reason you stated – it was a great show and the issues transcended being Italian American – and HBO has earned a reputation of producing quality work. On the other hand, I find MTV’s Jersey Shore to be offensive in almost every way possible, but vacuous and cynically exploitative content (and behavior) is characteristic of that network, so nobody says much. I think the difference is that the ABC show Work It was not well produced and it clumsily reached for cheap laughs based on offensive one-liners. It is also not indicative of ABC’s work; for example, Modern Family is another ABC show that I think is very well and lovingly done – but could, in theory, offend many people. Being out of poor quality and out of character made it doubly offensive. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

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